Review Summary: Dark Side of the Moon pt. 1234567890billion
Cult of Luna are practically the only active post-metal band with significant reach outside the genre (sorry, Amenra), an accolade frequently complicit with an illusory sense that they do something their contemporaries aren’t up for. If their audience transcends the label, so must their music
, etc. Hold those horses: at this point their sound and formula are so genre-encapsulating (read: heavily predictable) that even the most minor departure feels like a colossal twist. They exploited this rather successfully on 2013’s Vertikal
, but their releases since have been defined more by commonalities than points of mutual distinction. We heard this templated on 2019’s A Dawn to Fear
, tweaked on last year’s The Raging River
, and ‘tis now the hour for round three. Album-of-the-moment The Long Road North
fits so naturally into the band’s recent progression (read: chronological sequence of releases) that I struggle just as much to imagine anyone greeting it with disappointment as I do to see them being galactically impressed by it. Bottoms up, it’s a long walk home.
That established, let’s talk about small blessings. The Long Road North
is a more sophisticated record than A Dawn to Fear
, and Cult of Luna’s reputation for steely competence is quite at home in its various details and refinements. It’s less contingent on the intensity of individual moments, benefitting more from a pervasive atmosphere of the risky-wilderness-journey variety. This is neither as original nor as beguiling as the similarly destitute Somewhere Along The Highway
, but it does at least sound more frostbitten than anything else in the band’s repertoire. There’s its identity. Their arrangements have also grown to define individual songs in critical but non-focal ways, with keyboards playing a constant role on the periphery and upper-range guitars accentuating key moments more nimbly than ever. Perhaps the biggest shake-up, this album features chord progressions that actually, uh, progress. Get a load of “Into the Night”, a midway palette-cleanser--cum--chill-intensifier that lays on a spiral of minor chords so thick as to straddle “Phantom of the Opera” territory: maybe a little kitsch to lay down a full haunt, but a welcome change all the same. Complementarily, the dynamics lean a little less on clear-cut peaks and valleys, traversing intermediate terrain at refreshingly flexible trajectories, as per “The Silver Arc”’s fantastic central ‘jam’, for my money the best portent here for the band’s future direction. Finally, when they do go to town on their trademark crushing climaxes, they occasionally find fresh ways to frame them: “An Offering To The Wild” reprises its intro motif in a feint at a wind-down before dropping a pummeling coda that lands all the better for pulling the rug from under our armchairs. Well played, gentlemen. Something something [...] never cease to hone their craft.
These revisions of methodology are all very well and probably commendable, but they occupy enough of The Long Road North
that on first inspection you’ll be forgiven for forgetting that post-metal, especially this earthy kind so dedicated to conjuring gigantic momentum from plodding quavers, is much more about the promise of a mammoth payoff and sheer fucking stakes than the cute li’l’ nuances of the journey at hand. Cult of Luna’s albums neither live nor die by their subtleties, and this one is no exception. It’s a success story on its own terms, with opener “Cold Burn” and the title-track shifting colossal weights into satisfying spaces and the endgame highlight “Blood Upon Stone” laying down a truly thunderous finale, but hold it against the rest of their work and its resonance is modest. Is this more an expectation game than actual analysis? Apples and oranges: Cult of Luna’s craft might be tighter than a camel’s shitpipe, but their lifeblood relies on something larger than life that just isn’t conceivable when it feels like they’re abseiling from past peaks. They bring to mind James Cameron’s truism that If you set your goals ridiculously high and it's a failure, you will fail above everyone else's success
– for now, this sense is innocuous, but it’s ominous that that our current standard bearers are starting to get diminishing returns from a once-steady formula. The improbability of anyone else seems catching up anytime soon does little to change this.